Artistry and activism: new exhibits on display at Old College
Shortly after the start of the semester, on Sept. 3, two new exhibits opened at Old College. A gallery showcasing the work of artist Elizabeth Catlett, as well as a diverse collection of art and poetry encompassing the literary movement known as the Beat Generation, were both were organized by Amanda Zehnder, chief curator of Special Collections & Museums, and Tim Murray, head of Special Collections. Guest curator and photography specialist Stephen Petersen, who first introduced the idea for the Beat Generation exhibit, also assisted in the curation process for “Beat Visions.”
“The Art of Elizabeth Catlett: From the Collection of Samella Lewis,” now on display in Mechanical Hall, showcases work from the span of Catlett’s prolific, seven-decade-long career as an artist and activist. Her art depicted themes of race, gender and class struggles and social injustices that were deeply personal to her own experiences as a female African American artist trying to penetrate a mostly male and white field. She ultimately became the first African American woman to receive a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture, following her graduation from the University of Iowa in 1940.
Catlett’s style primarily borrowed from aspects of African and Mexican art traditions, as well as from elements of Modernism.
“Catlett herself was very politically, very socially engaged,” Zehnder said. “She was an American citizen initially, and then became a Mexican citizen as an adult. She very much identified with all sorts of things going on in Mexico and was involved in their art scene. She really did have a dual identification, so we’re trying to focus on those kinds of issues.”
The collection includes works of Catlett’s printmaking and wood sculpture, for which she is best known. Supplementing them are a handful of selected pieces from her second husband, Francisco Mora, and Samella Lewis, one of her students. The collection itself comes from Lewis, an artist, historian and author who was also one of Elizabeth’s lifelong friends.
The collection is a traveling exhibition organized and circulated by the Landau Traveling Exhibitions company, offering a special opportunity to see works from one of the best known female African American artists of the 20th century.
The Elizabeth Catlett gallery is also part of Gaining Ground, an interactive program of this year’s First-Year Experience course, during which freshmen visit the gallery as part of a digitally-guided tour that introduces and familiarizes them with the available resources at the university’s library and museums.
The second exhibit, entitled “Beat Visions and the Counterculture,” occupies a larger space, in Old College Gallery. The exhibit spotlights the wide array of eclectic and varied art and poetry from the Beat Generation, the 1950s American cultural and political movement characterized by its exploration of post-war era concepts, such as spirituality, non-conformity, spontaneity, psychedelic drugs and sexual liberation. Many of these important themes would also later be borrowed in the hippie and counterculture movements in the following decades.
“For this show we also wanted to emphasize the relationship between the writers and the visual artists, so there are lots of examples of collaborations,” Zehnder said. “That’s part of the story, of what people first think about with beat poets.”
Many of the items in the collection chronicle the work of such founding Beat Generation figures and writers as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, both of whom wrote key pieces of Beat literature which would come to define the movement and further help liberalize publishing in the United States.
“This happens to be a very deep pocket for Special Collections, in general they have a lot of holdings in poetry,” Zehnder said, describing the archives of the Special Collections department in Morris Library, from which most of the exhibit’s collection has been taken from.
“In the last few semesters we’ve tried to do a lot of collaborative exhibitions to celebrate this joining of Special Collections and Museums,” Zehnder said, referring to the merging of the Special Collections department and Museums department into one division in 2015. “The Beats show is very heavily Special Collections material.”
Also on display for “Beat Visions” are collages, posters, photography and film, and first edition and one-of-a-kind pieces. Many of these items on exhibit are often accompanied by interesting stories of their more obscure origins, history or previous ownership. One such example includes the glass-encased beard clippings of one of the movement’s leading poets and philosophers, Allen Ginsberg.
“The collecting of bits of hair from celebrities and historical figures is a collecting tradition that goes back a couple centuries and continues to this day,” Murray said. “In this case, the bookseller and collector Robert A. Wilson — whose extensive Allen Ginsberg collection is at Delaware — was a good friend of Ginsberg’s. I suspect Wilson asked Ginsberg for a piece of hair from his beard in the spirit of fun.”
Betty Zhang, a sophomore computer science major, was surprised to discover the Beat Generation exhibit in Old College Gallery, which was mostly quiet on a Thursday afternoon.
“I knew there was an ‘Old College’ here,” Zhang said. “But I didn’t know there was a gallery inside.”
Both exhibits are free for all visitors, and both are open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 12 to 6 p.m.
“The Art of Elizabeth Catlett” will remain open for the rest of the fall semester, until Dec. 6. A reception for the exhibition will be held in Mechanical Hall Gallery on Oct. 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. It will be followed by a day-long symposium that explores the art and activism of Catlett, entitled “My Art Speaks For Both My Peoples,” which will be held in Trabant University Theater on Oct. 4, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“Beat Visions and the Counterculture” will also remain open until Dec. 6, and will then reopen for all of next spring semester, from Feb. 11 to May 15. A reception sponsored by Dogfish Head Brewery will be held on Sept. 24, from 5 to 7 p.m., which includes a tour from guest curator Stephen Petersen.
According to Zehnder, the reception date has been coordinated with the Banned Books Read-out, as censorship was a similarly addressed theme in the Beat Generation movement — Ginsberg once published, in 1982, “liberation of the world from censorship” as one of the “essential effects” of the movement. The read-out is an event co-hosted by the English department and the Library, Museums and Press division, where participants will read excerpts of banned books on Old College Lawn. The event will take place the following day of the reception, Sept. 25.
Correction: A previous version of this article read that the Banned Books Read-Out would be held on the steps of Morris Library.